One of the great lures of the sport of football is the interdependency with which it must be played. It's a true team sport, with the success of an individual forever tied to that of the entire roster. Unlike a game like baseball in which team success is often the result of combined individual successes, football teams thrive by working in unison. As they say, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Nonetheless, there is room for individual players to take over games at times. It is invaluable to have these "game-breakers" who can alter the course of a contest on a single snap. The Dallas Cowboys have many, and you seem to know it when you see it. DeMarcus Ware is obviously a game-breaker. So is Tony Romo. DeMarco Murray can shift momentum on the ground, and Dez Bryant can do the same though the air.
On a larger scale, a player's continued elite play throughout the course of a year can propel his team into the postseason. We saw that last year from Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions. After throwing 20 interceptions in his rookie campaign and missing 13 games in 2010, Stafford erupted for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns last year. The Lions surely improved as a team, but it was the maturation of Stafford that largely defined their 2011 playoff season.
Although the Cowboys obviously haven't experienced the recent success fans have hoped for, they've still had standout performances that have greatly affected the course of the season. Here are the Cowboys' top five individual seasons over the past decade (with no player listed twice):
5. Miles Austin – 2009
Statistically, Austin's 2009 campaign is one of the best in Cowboys' history. It is the story behind it, though, that makes his emergence so incredible. Heading into 2009, Austin had racked up 18 total receptions in three years in the NFL. Dallas fans knew Austin as the kid who sported the ear-to-ear grin as he watched himself on the Jumbotron returning a kickoff to the house in the Cowboys' infamous 2007 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. So to say expectations for Austin were low heading into 2009 is an understatement.
Then, after four relatively quiet weeks to begin the season, Austin exploded for 250 yards and two touchdowns in Week 5, including the game-winning score in overtime to beat the Kansas City Chiefs.
All told, Austin ended up posting the sixth-highest single-season receiving yards total in franchise history, behind only Michael Irvin (four times) and Terrell Owens. His 11 touchdowns place him seventh in team history, and the 81 receptions from that 2009 year are the ninth-most for a Cowboy. And, oh yeah, Austin started only nine games that season.
4. Jay Ratliff – 2008
Nose tackles aren't supposed to put up huge numbers, but Ratliff was an exception in 2008. With only eight career sacks in three seasons heading into 2008, Ratliff wasn't considered one of the league's top interior defensive linemen. That changed when Ratliff erupted for 7.5 sacks and 51 tackles in 2008. Both numbers are still career-highs.
3. Jason Witten – 2007
We all know how important Witten has been to the Cowboys over the past decade, playing at an All-Pro level as one of the NFL's best tight ends. Perhaps more importantly, Witten is as consistent as they come. He isn't a "game-breaker" in the traditional sense, but his reliability affects games perhaps more so than any other tight end in the league.
In 2007, Witten hauled in a career-high 96 passes for 1,145 yards, scoring seven touchdowns in the process. Displaying his consistency, Witten had only four games with less than 50 receiving yards.
2. Tony Romo – 2009
A case could be made for 2011 being Romo's best season to date, but the 2009 campaign was more successful from a team perspective. In that year, Romo posted a 63.1 percent completion rate, 4,483 yards, and 26 touchdowns.
The most crucial stat, however, was Romo's nine interceptions – the fewest he's ever thrown in a full season. Romo made a change to his game that year, emphasizing turnover-minimization. Not surprisingly, the Cowboys went 11-5, snagged the NFC East crown, and won their first playoff game since 1996. Making the year even sweeter, the 'Boys took down the Eagles on three occasions.
1. DeMarcus Ware – 2008
I've gone on record as saying I think the NFL's single-season sack record of 22.5 will fall in the near future, and even that Ware has the best shot to do it. The closest he came was in 2008, registering 20 sacks (and a career-high 69 tackles). There's no better pass-rusher in the NFL than Ware, and his value in 2008 was perhaps greater than in any other season.
Interestingly, despite being a list of the Cowboys' best seasons over the past 10 years, all of the team's strongest individual efforts have come in the last half-decade. I think that shows that the team still has the necessary core to make a deep postseason run, but also that, as owner Jerry Jones suggested, the window of opportunity is closing.
So who are the most likely players to sustain an All-Pro level of play in 2012 to launch the 'Boys back into the postseason? In addition to the guys above, the Cowboys have some other potential game-breakers. The combination of rookie Morris Claiborne and free agent Brandon Carr should provide Dallas with the best cornerback duo they've had in years. Tyron Smith has a chance to be something special at left tackle, and despite his recent troubles, Bryant is in line for a monster year outside.
Of course, the next Austin might be right under our noses, poised for a breakout season and we don't even know it. Maybe it's Sean Lissemore, Barry Church or Bruce Carter. Maybe Ronald Leary will be the next great undrafted Cowboy, or perhaps John Phillips will become a presence over the middle of the field.
Whoever it is, if the Cowboys get an unforeseen boost from an unlikely player, chances are you'll see the 2012 season wind up at least as successful as Austin's breakout year of 2009.